The Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). It’s been around forever. Since 1878 to be precise. To consider its demise seems blasphemous and even suicidal. I ask you to be brave and join me on a journey to explore the possibility of a world without the PSTN, and why you should care.
Why a PSTN?
In 1876, telephones were sold in pairs. If you wanted to talk to your sister on the telephone, you would need to lay cable between your house and hers. In January, 1878, the world’s first telephone exchange was established in New Haven, Connecticut. Call switching was performed manually. Operators manned switchboards repeatedly requesting “Number, Plee-uhz”. As the popularity of the telephone grew, iconic telephone poles became part of the landscape in both urban and rural areas in the United States.
By the late 1880s electromechanical switches were introduced, and in the 1920s, rotary dials on telephones replaced the telegraph key on telephones. Crossbar switches that were capable of completing a call in a tenth of a second were introduced in 1935. Electronic switches that completed calls within nanoseconds were introduced in 1968.
In the 1980s the industry began planning for digital services assuming they would follow much the same pattern as voice services, and conceived end-to-end circuit switched services, known as the Broadband Integrated Services Digital Network (B-ISDN). The B-ISDN vision was overtaken by the disruptive technology of the Internet.
The PSTN Today
In the United States, there has been a steady decline in the revenue from PSTN traffic. In fact, the National Center for Health Statistics projects that only 6% of the US population will still be served by the PSTN by the end of 2018.
As early as 2011, the Technical Advisory Council (TAC) to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recommended that the FCC set a date for the sunset of the PSTN rather than let the service fade slowly.
In early 2015 AT&T reported that, on average, its Illinois customers were dropping 1,000 old-fashioned landlines every day.
Ford’s Detroit headquarters purchased 8,000 wireless phones for the staff and ripped up its landlines. Eighty-five percent of the company’s business is now conducted wirelessly
In 17 of the 21 states where AT&T is the main carrier, lawmakers have eliminated regulations that require phone giants like AT&T and Verizon to keep POTS in place. However, even in states that have deregulated, the phone companies are waiting for the Federal Communications Commission to give its blessing before they get rid of the old landlines.
Why bother, you might ask? Why not let the old geezer die a slow death? Simply put.. It is costing each one of us big bucks in the form of government subsidies, to maintain the PSTN. The Universal Service Fund (USF), which is collected by carriers from phone users and redistributed by the government, still supports rural telephone service. With the flight to packet well underway by the more lucrative PSTN customers, the cost of subsidizing the remaining customers – rural dwellers, elderly urban dwellers for the most part – will skyrocket. USF revenue, sourced mainly from PSTN users, will continue to decline.
Dropping the subsidies alone would not be a viable option, as it would leave the aforementioned customer base stranded without voice communication and access to 911.
Another serious concern is reliability. In a power failure, POTS customers can still make calls because copper wires still provide current. Some home alarms and medical-monitoring systems don’t work with wireless systems.
The TAC has recommended that the government ensure that everyone who now has PSTN service has access to either a broadband or cellular communication alternative, or that the PSTN sunset by synchronized with this availability.
How telling is this quote from an AT&T filing with the FCC in 2014:
In other words, it is inevitable that over time circuit switched telephony will become irretrievably obsolete. And that day is fast approaching. Not only are customers abandoning circuit-switched networks and services in droves, making it increasingly uneconomic to maintain those legacy networks, but manufacturers of the equipment needed to maintain and operate those networks are likewise moving on. Those manufacturers want to focus their businesses on the networks of the future, not technology that is being displaced, and so they are discontinuing production of TDM equipment. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain needed spare parts to keep legacy TDM networks going.
It has been a great ride with you, PSTN…. Thanks for the memories.